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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Drying meat on the Kiowa Reservation
(19344.65.3, Virgil Robbins Collection, OHS).

Kiowa man in buffalo horn headdress
(22117.35, Rev. George W. Hicks Collection, OHS).

Part of Satanta's Band at Fort Sill, 1872
(191, Josiah Butler Collection, OHS).


At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Kiowa remained one of Oklahoma's most vital American Indian tribes. Leaving their ancestral homelands near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River of western Montana in the late seventeenth century, the horse-seeking Kiowa and affiliated Plains Apache had migrated southeast through Crow country and had reached the Black Hills of Wyoming/South Dakota by 1775. Then in the early nineteenth century the two peoples had been pushed south of the Platte to the Arkansas River by the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne. The new Kiowa and Plains Apache homeland lay in the southwestern plains adjacent to the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado and western Kansas and the Red River drainage of the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma. Characterized by mild winters and ample grazing, the region teemed with bison and feral horse herds, and the Kiowa developed an equestrian, bison-hunting culture. The Kiowa and Plains Apache initially skirmished with the more populous Comanche before creating a confederation between 1790 and 1806, and by 1840 the Kiowa had forged alliances with the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Osage.

Provisions of the 1865 Little Arkansas Treaty forced the Kiowa and Comanche to relinquish lands in Kansas and New Mexico, and the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty established a 2.8 million acre reservation in southwestern Oklahoma. There the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache were confined following their subjugation at the end of the Red River War in May 1875. Kiowa-Comanche-Apache (KCA) Reservation lands were allotted in 1901 and 1906 following the controversial 1892 Jerome Agreement and the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903). In the year 2000 more than four thousand out of approximately 12,500 Kiowa lived near the towns of Anadarko, Fort Cobb, and Carnegie, in Caddo and Kiowa counties, Oklahoma. Kiowa also reside in urban and suburban communities from San Jose, California, to Washington, D.C.

The modern version of the Kiowa creation myth relates that their ancestors lived underground until Saynday, or Trickster, mutated the people into ants, then summoned them to emerge to the earth's exterior through a hollow cottonwood log. Because a pregnant female became lodged in the opening, about half of the Kiowa remained subterranean dwellers, explaining why the nineteenth century Kiowa, the T'epda, or "Coming-out" People, never numbered more than one thousand to sixteen hundred.

During the prereservation era of the early and mid-nineteenth century the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache alliance dominated the southwestern plains. The Comanche controlled the Staked Plains of the Texas Panhandle, and to the north, the Kiowa and Plains Apache inhabited the Arkansas River region. Fully transformed into southwestern plains equestrian hunter-gatherers, the Kiowa captured mustangs in the Staked Plains and then trained them for specific purposes in hunting, warfare, and transportation. Additionally, close proximity to the Spanish settlements south of the Red River in Texas and Mexico was conducive to the development of a raiding economy and social differentiation based on the acquisition of plunder, captives, and horses. Combined Kiowa-Comanche raiding parties heading south frequently skirmished with Mexican and Texan enemies, whereas Kiowa war parties traveling west fought against the Ute and Navajo, oftentimes stopping to trade with the easternmost Pueblo peoples in New Mexico. Other enemies included the Pawnee, who came from the north to steal horses from the three horse-rich allies and from the eastern tribes that had been relocated into eastern Kansas and Oklahoma in the 1820s and 1830s. By this time the Kiowa bands had aggregated into large winter and summer encampments for mutual protection.

Nineteenth-century Kiowa practiced bilateral (maternal and paternal lines) descent and utilized a generational kin classification system similar to Hawaiian kinship systems, in which relatives are differentiated by sex and generation. With exceptions, collateral relatives in the grandparents' generation were recognized as grandparents, a person's cousins were "brothers" and "sisters," siblings' children were "sons" and "daughters," and great-grandparents and great-grandchildren reciprocally addressed one another as siblings. Kin terminology included using the same word for parents' siblings: mother and mother's sister were called "mother," father and father's brother were called "father," whereas mother's brother and father's sister were "uncle" and "aunt." Brothers and sisters practiced strict avoidance relationships after age ten, but men bonded closely with their sisters' husbands; brothers-in-law made good hunting and warrior companions.

During the height of the horse and buffalo culture, circa 1832 to 1869, Kiowa society was comprised of ten to twenty bands, or kindreds, extended family groups led by the eldest brother. A typical kindred was comprised of a man, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, their spouses and children, and often his parents and their brothers. Upper echelon, ondedw or "rich" kindreds, were comprised of wealthy families called do'oi "family of many tipis," signifying that wealthy kindreds attracted a large following. Every nuclear family inhabited a tipi, and where polygyny, typically sororal, was practiced, each wife occupied her own; younger, unmarried men shared a bachelors' tipi. After marriage, residence with the father's family was preferred, though bilocality often resulted from residing with the wealthier of the two kindreds.

Ondedw kindreds (ten percent of the total population) were led by high-ranking men who possessed dw'dw', supernatural "power" that contributed to their success as great warriors and owners of tribal or personal medicine bundles. Solidarity within ondedw kindreds was achieved by recruiting kwwn "poor" families that needed protection and the advantages of cooperative hunting. Next were Ondegupa, or "second rank" kindreds (thirty to fifty percent) represented by lesser-ranked leaders, and below them were the kwwn (ten to fifty percent), the dapom, "bums," or "no-accounts," and the go.bop "captives"(ten percent). Sharp contrasts between rich and poor characterized Kiowa society, but social mobility was occasionally achieved through the accumulation of war honors. In the mid-nineteenth century each of the ten to twenty kindreds was led by a "main chief," or dopadok'i, a term related to topadoga, "band"; the kindreds are not to be confused with the five Kiowa "bands" or "subtribes" of the coalesced sun dance circle. Average band size ranged from twelve to fifty tipis, and the bands were distributed into northern and southern groups. During the southern plains wars (1867–75) the southern bands, or Guhale, inhabited the Staked Plains with the Kwahada Comanche. U.S. Army officials identified the aggregated bands as "hostiles," or "out" Indians who defied reservation boundaries to raid south into Texas and northern Mexico.

After the Red River War and the cessation of Indian-white warfare in the southwestern plains, Kiowa band leaders were relegated to "beef chiefs" who oversaw the distribution of beef annuities to the remnant bands scattered north of the Wichita Mountains. Throughout the reservation period (1868–1901), government efforts to transform the Kiowa into self-sufficient ranchers and farmers failed due to drought conditions and inadequate Congressional annuity funds during austere times. In 1886 the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache began leasing reservation pasturage to Texas cattlemen for "grass money," though ironically, forced allotment resulted in smaller per capita payments after 1901. Before World War II the largely rural Kiowa peoples lived in poverty as a result of federal Indian policies that fostered dependency.

Nineteenth-century Kiowa religious beliefs centered around the animistic beings who represented in various degrees the animatistic, orenda-like power force dw'dw' that permeated the universe and became manifest in natural phenomena (thunder, lightning, whirlwind, the four directional winds) and in birds and animals. In accordance with Kiowa hierarchy, spirit beings possessed varying degrees of dw'dw' transferable to humans through the vision quest. The most powerful source of warfare-related dw'dw' came from Sun, life force of the universe and provider/protector of the Kiowa people. Sun was father to Son of the Sun, who divided into the Split Boys, one of whom mutated into the Eucharistic Talyi-da-i "Boy Medicines," known today as the Ten Medicines. The ten nineteenth-century keepers maintained Kiowa spiritual integrity and negotiated conflict resolution; today, gifts and prayers are still offered to the sacred bundles.

The sacred taime bundle survives, but the Sun Dance ritual it represents has not been performed in its entirety since 1887. In its void, some Kiowa practiced the Ghost Dance between 1890 and 1916, a movement that attracted shamans and followers of the peyote religion. In 1918 the Native American Church of Oklahoma was chartered, and today, several Kiowa roadmen conduct periodic tipi meetings. Permanent missions appeared on the KCA Reservation in 1887, as evident by extant Baptist and Methodist churches scattered throughout Kiowa country. Contemporary Kiowa beliefs often reflect indigenous and Christian elements, yet Kiowa peoples believe that all prayers go to Dwk'i, "God," possessor of dw'dw'.

World War II rekindled the Kiowa warrior spirit, which endures to this day. Urbanization and modernization occurred in the war's aftermath. Currently, Kiowa veterans and soldiers in the armed forces commemorate the defiant, warlike spirit of nineteenth-century leaders Set'aide (White Bear) and Setangya (Sitting Bear) in warrior society dances performed by the Kiowa Gourd Clan and Black Leggings Warrior Society, and other organizations. Noted contemporary Kiowas include the Pulitzer Prize–winning author N. Scott Momaday and physician Everett Rhoades. Kiowa cultural identity and pride is apparent in their expressive culture and strong influence on the Gourd Dance and southern plains art.

Since 1968 the Kiowa have been governed by the Kiowa Tribal Council, which presides over business related to health, education, and economic and industrial development programs. The Kiowa receive income from various ventures, including their participation in the Oklahoma Indian Arts and Crafts Cooperative. At the beginning of the twenty-first century about three hundred Kiowas, who refer to themselves as Koigu, "the people," still speak Kiowa, a Kiowa-Tanoan language related to Tiwa, Tewa, and Towa spoken in ten of the Rio Grande Pueblos. Kiowa cultural revitalization activities include classes to teach and thereby preserve the Kiowa language.

Benjamin R. Kracht


Maurice Boyd, Kiowa Voices. Ceremonial Dance, Ritual and Song, Vol. 1 (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1981).

John C. Ewers, Murals in the Round: Painted Tipis of the Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache Indians (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978).

R. Weston LaBarre, The Peyote Cult (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1938).

Luke E. Lassiter, The Power of Kiowa Song (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998).

James Mooney, Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979).

Laurel J. Watkins, A Grammar of Kiowa (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Benjamin R. Kracht, “Kiowa (tribe),” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=KI017.

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